The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
"I think I'll go see Jane Hubbard this evening," Orde remarked to his mother, as he arose from the table. This was his method of announcing that he would not be home for supper.
Jane Hubbard lived in a low one-story house of blue granite, situated amid a grove of oaks at the top of the hill. She was a kindly girl, whose parents gave her free swing, and whose house, in consequence, was popular with the younger people. Every Sunday she offered to all who came a "Sunday-night lunch," which consisted of cold meats, cold salad, bread, butter, cottage cheese, jam, preserves, and the like, warmed by a cup of excellent tea. These refreshments were served by the guests themselves. It did not much matter how few or how many came.
On the Sunday evening in question Orde found about the usual crowd gathered. Jane herself, tall, deliberate in movement and in speech, kindly and thoughtful, talked in a corner with Ernest Colburn, who was just out of college, and who worked in a bank. Mignonne Smith, a plump, rather pretty little body with a tremendous aureole of hair like spun golden fire, was trying to balance a croquet-ball on the end of a ruler. The ball regularly fell off. Three young men, standing in attentive attitudes, thereupon dove forward in an attempt to catch it before it should hit the floor--which it generally did with a loud thump. A collapsed chair of slender lines stacked against the wall attested previous acrobatics. This much Orde, standing in the doorway, looked upon quite as the usual thing. Only he missed the Incubus. Searching the room with his eyes, he at length discovered that incoherent, desiccated, but persistent youth vis-a-vis with a stranger. Orde made out the white of her gown in the shadows, the willowy outline of her small and slender figure, and the gracious forward bend of her head.
The company present caught sight of Orde standing in the doorway, and suspended occupations to shout at him joyfully. He was evidently a favourite. The strange girl in the corner turned to him a white, long face, of which he could see only the outline and the redness of the lips where the lamplight reached them. She leaned slightly forward and the lips parted. Orde's muscular figure, standing square and uncompromising in the doorway, the out-of-door freshness of his complexion, the steadiness of his eyes laughing back a greeting, had evidently attracted her. Or perhaps anything was a relief from the Incubus.
"So you're back at last, are you, Jack?" drawled Jane in her lazy, good-natured way. "Come and meet Miss Bishop. Carroll, I want to present Mr. Orde."
Orde bowed ceremoniously into the penumbra cast by the lamp's broad shade. The girl inclined gracefully her small head with the glossy hair. The Incubus, his thin hands clasped on his knee, his sallow face twisted in one of its customary wry smiles, held to the edge of his chair with characteristic pertinacity.
"Well, Walter," Orde addressed him genially, "are you having a good time?"
"Yes-indeed!" replied the Incubus as though it were one word.
His chair was planted squarely to exclude all others. Orde surveyed the situation with good-humour.
"Going to keep the other fellow from getting a chance, I see."
"Yes-indeed!" replied the Incubus.
Orde bent over, and with great ease lifted Incubus, chair, and all, and set him facing Mignonne Smith and the croquet-ball.
"Here, Mignonne," said he, "I've brought you another assistant."
He returned to the lamp, to find the girl, her dark eyes alight with amusement, watching him intently. She held the tip of a closed fan against her lips, which brought her head slightly forward in an attitude as though she listened. Somehow there was about her an air of poise, of absolute balanced repose quite different from Jane's rather awkward statics, and in direct contrast to Mignonne's dynamics.
"Walter is a very bright man in his own line," said Orde, swinging forward a chair, "but he mustn't be allowed any monopolies."
"How do you know I want him so summarily removed?" the girl asked him, without changing either her graceful attitude of suspended motion or the intentness of her gaze.
"Well," argued Orde, "I got him to say all he ever says to any girl-- 'Yes-indeed!'--so you couldn't have any more conversation from him. If you want to look at him, why, there he is in plain sight. Besides, I want to talk to you myself."
"Do you always get what you want?" inquired the girl.
"Any one can get anything he wants, if only he wants it bad enough," he asserted.
The girl pondered this for a moment, and finally lowered and opened her fan, and threw back her head in a more relaxed attitude.
"Some people," she amended. "However, I forgive you. I will even flatter you by saying I am glad you came. You look to have reached the age of discretion. I venture to say that these boys' idea of a lively evening is to throw bread about the table."
Orde flushed a little. The last time he had supped at Jane Hubbard's, that was exactly what they did do.
"They are young, of course," he said, "and you and I are very old and wise. But having a noisy, good time isn't such a great crime-- or is it where you came from?"
The girl leaned forward, a sparkle of interest in her eyes.
"Are you and I going to fight?" she demanded.
"That depends on you," returned Orde squarely, but with perfect good-humour.
They eyed each other a moment. Then the girl closed her fan, and leaned forward to touch him on the arm with it.
"You are quite right not to allow me to say mean things about your friends, and I am a nasty little snip."
Orde bowed with sudden gravity.
"And they do throw bread," said he.
They both laughed. She leaned back with a movement of satisfaction, seeming to sink into the shadows.
"Now, tell me; what do you do?"
"What do I do?" asked Orde, puzzled.
"Yes. Everybody does something out West here. It's a disgrace not to do something, isn't it?"
"Oh, my business! I'm a river-driver just now."
"A river-driver?" she repeated, once more leaning forward. "Why, I've just been hearing a great deal about you."
"That so?" he inquired.
"Yes, from Mrs. Baggs."
"Oh!" said Orde. "Then you know what a drunken, swearing, worthless lot of bums and toughs we are, don't you?"
For the first time, in some subtle way she broke the poise of her attitude.
"There is Hell's Half-Mile," she reminded him.
"Oh, yes," said Orde bitterly, "there's Hell's Half-Mile! Whose fault is that? My rivermen's? My boys? Look here! I suppose you couldn't understand it, if you tried a month; but suppose you were working out in the woods nine months of the year, up early in the morning and in late at night. Suppose you slept in rough blankets, on the ground or in bunks, ate rough food, never saw a woman or a book, undertook work to scare your city men up a tree and into a hole too easy, risked your life a dozen times a week in a tangle of logs, with the big river roaring behind just waiting to swallow you; saw nothing but woods and river, were cold and hungry and wet, and so tired you couldn't wiggle, until you got to feeling like the thing was never going to end, and until you got sick of it way through in spite of the excitement and danger. And then suppose you hit town, where there were all the things you hadn't had--and the first thing you struck was Hell's Half-Mile. Say! you've seen water behind a jam, haven't you? Water-power's a good thing in a mill course, where it has wheels to turn; but behind a jam it just rips things--oh, what's the use talking! A girl doesn't know what it means. She couldn't understand."
He broke off with an impatient gesture. She was looking at him intently, her lips again half-parted.
"I think I begin to understand a little," said she softly. She smiled to herself. "But they are a hard and heartless class in spite of all their energy and courage, aren't they?" she drew him out.
"Hard and heartless!" exploded Orde. "There's no kinder lot of men on earth, let me tell you. Why, there isn't a man on that river who doesn't chip in five or ten dollars when a man is hurt or killed; and that means three or four days' hard work for him. And he may not know or like the injured man at all! Why--"
"What's all the excitement?" drawled Jane Hubbard behind them. "Can't you make it a to-be-continued-in-our-next? We're 'most starved."
"Yes-indeed!" chimed in the Incubus.
The company trooped out to the dining-room where the table, spread with all the good things, awaited them.
"Ernest, you light the candles," drawled Jane, drifting slowly along the table with her eye on the arrangements, "and some of you boys go get the butter and the milk-pitcher from the ice-box."
To Orde's relief, no one threw any bread, although the whole-hearted fun grew boisterous enough before the close of the meal. Miss Bishop sat directly across from him. He had small chance of conversation with her in the hubbub that raged, but he gained full leisure to examine her more closely in the fuller illumination. Throughout, her note was of fineness. Her hands, as he had already noticed, were long, the fingers tapering; her wrists were finely moulded, but slender, and running without abrupt swelling of muscles into the long lines of her forearm; her figure was rounded, but built on the curves of slenderness; her piled, glossy hair was so fine that though it was full of wonderful soft shadows denied coarser tresses, its mass hardly did justice to its abundance. Her face, again, was long and oval, with a peculiar transparence to the skin and a peculiar faint, healthy circulation of the blood well below the surface, which relieved her complexion of pallor, but did not give her a colour. The lips, on the contrary, were satin red, and Orde was mildly surprised, after his recent talk, to find them sensitively moulded, and with a quaint, child-like quirk at the corners. Her eyes were rather contemplative, and so black as to resemble spots.
In spite of her half-scornful references to "bread-throwing," she joined with evident pleasure in the badinage and more practical fun which struck the note of the supper. Only Orde thought to discern even in her more boisterous movements a graceful, courteous restraint, to catch in the bend of her head a dainty concession to the joy of the moment, to hear in the tones of her laughter a reservation of herself, which nevertheless was not at all a reservation, against the others.
After the meal was finished, each had his candle to blow out, and then all returned to the parlour, leaving the debris for the later attention of the "hired help."
Orde with determination made his way to Miss Bishop's side. She smiled at him.
"You see, I am a hypocrite as well as a mean little snip," said she. "I threw a little bread myself."
"Threw bread?" repeated Orde. "I didn't see you."
"The moon is made of green cheese," she mocked him, "and there are countries where men's heads do grow beneath their shoulders." She moved gracefully away toward Jane Hubbard. "Do you Western 'business men' never deal in figures of speech as well as figures of the other sort?" she wafted back to him over her shoulder.
"I was very stupid," acknowledged Orde, following her.
She stopped and faced him in the middle of the room, smiling quizzically.
"Well?" she challenged.
"Well, what?" asked Orde, puzzled.
"I thought perhaps you wanted to ask me something."
"Your following me," she explained, the corners of her mouth smiling. "I had turned away--"
"I just wanted to talk to you," said Orde.
"And you always get what you want," she repeated. "Well?" she conceded, with a shrug of mock resignation. But the four other men here cut in with a demand.
"Music!" they clamoured. "We want music!"
With a nod, Miss Bishop turned to the piano, sweeping aside her white draperies as she sat. She struck a few soft chords, and then, her long hands wandering idly and softly up and down the keys, she smiled at them over her shoulder.
"What shall it be?" she inquired.
Some one thrust an open song-book on the rack in front of her. The others gathered close about, leaning forward to see.
Song followed song, at first quickly, then at longer intervals. At last the members of the chorus dropped away one by one to occupations of their own. The girl still sat at the piano, her head thrown back idly, her hands wandering softly in and out of melodies and modulations. Watching her, Orde finally saw only the shimmer of her white figure, and the white outline of her head and throat. All the rest of the room was gray from the concentration of his gaze. At last her hands fell in her lap. She sat looking straight ahead of her.
Orde at once arose and came to her.
"That was a wonderfully quaint and beautiful thing," said he. "What was it?"
She turned to him, and he saw that the mocking had gone from her eyes and mouth, leaving them quite simple, like a child's.
"Did you like it?" she asked.
"Yes," said Orde. He hesitated and stammered awkwardly. "It was so still and soothing, it made me think of the river sometimes about dusk. What was it?"
"It wasn't anything. I was improvising."
"You made it up yourself?"
"It was myself, I suppose. I love to build myself a garden, and wander on until I lose myself in it. I'm glad there was a river in the garden--a nice, still, twilight river."
She flashed up at him, her head sidewise.
"There isn't always." She struck a crashing discord on the piano.
Every one looked up at the sudden noise of it.
"Oh, don't stop!" they cried in chorus, as though each had been listening intently.
The girl laughed up at Orde in amusement. Somehow this flash of an especial understanding between them to the exclusion of the others sent a warm glow to his heart.
"I do wish you had your harp here," said Jane Hubbard, coming indolently forward. "You just ought to hear her play the harp," she told the rest. "It's just the best thing you ever did hear!"
At this moment the outside door opened to admit Mr and Mrs. Hubbard, who had, according to their usual Sunday custom, been spending the evening with a neighbour. This was the signal for departure. The company began to break up.
Orde pushed his broad shoulders in to screen Carroll Bishop from the others.
"Are you staying here?" he asked.
She opened her eyes wide at his brusqueness.
"I'm visiting Jane," she replied at length, with an affectation of demureness.
"Are you going to be here long?" was Orde's next question.
"About a month."
"I am coming to see you," announced Orde. "Good-night."
He took her hand, dropped it, and followed the others into the hall, leaving her standing by the lamp. She watched him until the outer door had closed behind him. Not once did he look back. Jane Hubbard, returning after a moment from the hall, found her at the piano again, her head slightly one side, playing with painful and accurate exactness a simple one-finger melody.
Orde walked home down the hill in company with the Incubus. Neither had anything to say; Orde because he was absorbed in thought, the Incubus because nothing occurred to draw from him his one remark. Their feet clipped sharply against the tar walks, or rang more hollow on the boards. Overhead the stars twinkled through the still-bare branches of the trees. With few exceptions the houses were dark. People "retired" early in Redding. An occasional hall light burned dimly, awaiting some one's return. At the gate of the Orde place, Orde roused himself to say good-night. He let himself into the dim-lighted hall, hung up his hat, and turned out the gas. For some time he stood in the dark, quite motionless; then, with the accuracy of long habitude, he walked confidently to the narrow stairs and ascended them. Subconsciously he avoided the creaking step, but outside his mother's door he stopped, arrested by a greeting from within.
"That you, Jack?" queried Grandma Orde.
For answer Orde pushed open the door, which stood an inch or so ajar, and entered. A dim light from a distant street-lamp, filtered through the branches of a tree, flickered against the ceiling. By its aid he made out the great square bed, and divined the tiny figure of his mother. He seated himself sidewise on the edge of the bed.
"Go to Jane's?" queried grandma in a low voice, to avoid awakening grandpa, who slept in the adjoining room.
"Yes," replied Orde, in the same tone.
"Who was there?"
"Oh, about the usual crowd."
He fell into an abstracted silence, which endured for several minutes.
"Mother," said he abruptly, at last, "I've met the girl I want for my wife."
Grandma Orde sat up in bed.
"Who is she?" she demanded.
"Her name is Carroll Bishop," said Orde, "and she's visiting Jane Hubbard."
"Yes, but who is she?" insisted Grandma Orde. "Where is she from?"
Orde stared at her in the dim light.
"Why, mother," he repeated for the second time that day, "blest if I know that!"